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At the Center of All Infinity: Is It Scheme or Execution?

Bret Rumbeck
Aug 2, 2019 at 8:00 AM

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Professional football coaches often find themselves at the center of a debate with no beginning or end. Frenzied fans on one side may heap accolades on the coach's philosophy, style, and scheme. At the other end is an equally radical group ready to pounce at any scent of an error - a bad draft pick, wrong trade, or call in the red zone.

Skip social media and find a barstool in a football-hungry town; I guarantee you'll overhear people discuss this very topic. The greyed truth is somewhere in the middle of the endless debate, as no coach finishes an NFL career with every play call being perfect, and every roster move praised.

Through ten games in 2017, the 49ers' offense scored 181 points before quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took over behind center. The 49ers' offense closed 2017 winning five straight and scoring 150 points. Last season, the team scored 342 points, with 37 percent of the offense's drives ending with a score. However, the 49ers' offense also had 17.1 percent of its possessions end in a turnover, ranking it second to last in the NFL.

During the 2019 offseason, it felt as though San Francisco 49ers fans and experts turned up the heat a bit more on head coach Kyle Shanahan's system.

Shanahan is not entirely to blame for the lack of production on offense, though he's not immune from unbiased criticism. Often, it's a lack of execution that bungles a great play against a weak defense.

Here are two instances where the 49ers' offense has the right play but failed to execute.

Week 10 vs. New York Giants - Fourth Quarter: 3rd and 6 at the NYG 15. (2:59)

Play: Trouble Right Bunch, H-Left, 2 Scat, H Arches, X Bench

Shanahan called Arches early in the 3rd quarter, and quarterback Nick Mullens found running back Matt Breida for a 19-yard gain. He called it again when the 49ers were in the red zone when the team needed six yards to keep a drive alive.

Arches is a quality red-zone play; the bench and corner routes cleared space for the two underneath routes: Arches and Eliminator.

Mullens' first read in the play is Arches, which Breida ran. The second look is wide receiver Kendrick Bourne's Eliminator route, which looks a bit like a drive pattern.

Mullens did not have an open receiver when he finished his three-step drop. He did, however, have enough protection to move his eyes back to the middle of the field. I don't know if he saw the Mike linebacker at the bottom of roughly 90 square yards of turf to cover.

This image was one second after the previous screenshot. Bourne was now wide open with at least two full steps on the linebacker. Breida, the first read in the play, was covered; therefore, Mullens should have immediately checked to Bourne.

In the post-game press conference, Shanahan noted the play was disrupted because "... someone fell under the arches... He got hit by a plugger, and we were a little bit late to it, because the guard, someone flashed across Nick's face, so he couldn't throw it on time."

I'm still unclear who Shanahan saw get hit by a plugger. I watched the play 15 times and did not see any 49er receiver get hit by a Giant. Breida was covered, but not hit. A defensive lineman flashed but guard Mike Person picked him up just as quickly, still giving Mullens time to deliver the football to Bourne.

Shanahan gave a detailed look at the play, stating if the arches route was covered, "... you (the quarterback) have to go across the board to the shallow (the eliminator route)."

Mullens was now in a perfect storm. He'd held the ball for too long, and he'd scrambled back 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He finally found Bourne but had to make a 22.5-yard throw to gain three yards.

H-Arches was the right call against the Giants' soft defense. The primary and secondary receivers do not need to gain depth and stretch the defense vertically. Bourne needed six yards to gain a first down and had plenty of space to run if Mullens found him earlier in the play.

Unfortunately, Mullens' errors forced him to make a dangerous throw for a meager gain. The drive ended with kicker Robbie Gould connecting on a 30-yard field goal.

Week 8: vs. Arizona Cardinals - First Quarter: 1st and 10 at the ARI 37 (6:08)

Play: West Right Tite Slot, P18 Extra F Rail Cop

The above play was not in the red zone, but second-year quarterback C.J. Beathard did not take his eyes of tight end George Kittle and missed an easy six points.

P18-19 Extra is play-action protection, and the offensive line's job is to sell a run to the perimeter. In this play, the 49ers were sending Brieda to the 8-hole, and then he'd drift into the flat.

Beathard's head snapped right to Kittle's seam route immediately after completing the fake to Breida. Both strong safety Budda Baker and Arizona's free safety noticed, and doubled Kittle in coverage. Baker, I'm guessing, should have dropped to cover fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Here's the all-22 look of the same moment. Beathard had his eyes squarely in the middle of the field, missing Juszczyk on a wide-open rail route.

In fairness to Beathard, center Erik Magnuson's looping backside block was not helpful. He overshot and was in the wrong position, Magnuson's error cleared the lane for safety Antoine Bethea to sack Beathard for a 9-yard loss.

Any quarterback who's played nearly any level of football is guilty of staring down his target, especially on specific plays or with particular receivers. Kittle was the anchor of the 49ers' offense last year, so I don't blame Beathard for immediately looking for his best weapon.

Unfortunately, Beathard wasted a great play and proper protection; the Cardinals sacked him for a 9-yard loss. The drive ended two plays later and the 49ers were forced to punt.

In both instances, Shanahan's scheme was not a problem. That's not to tear down or spite Mullens or Beathard - even great quarterbacks miss open receivers during a season. Pointing the finger at Shanahan for all of the 49ers' red zone woes isn't fair, nor is it objective. It's an easy excuse and ignores what's on film.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
All images courtesy of
  • Bret Rumbeck
  • Written by:
    Bret Rumbeck has been writing about the 49ers since 2017 for 49ers Webzone and 49ers Hub. He is a Turlock, CA native, and has worked for two members of the US House of Representatives and one US Senator. When not breaking down game film, Bret spends his time seeking out various forms of heavy metal. Feel free to follow him or direct inquiries to @brumbeck.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • Mike Kenney
    Things haven’t changed yet. Our interior line, and lack of ball in hand experience of all 3 QBs project as missed reads. Keep Jimmy on the field and elevate those three interior lineman in synch and we could get awesome
    Aug 2, 2019 at 11:12 AM

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